Wild Blueberry Commission Agrees to Increased Grower Representation

The audience of growers: (far left) Marie Emerson, (far right) Courtney Hammond, (center with papers in lap) UMO horticulture Prof. Dale Yarborough. (Photo by Nancy Beal)

By Nancy Beal

Several small wild blueberry growers, most from Washington County, were in the room when the Wild Blueberry Commission (WBC) met at the Hancock County Extension Service office in Ellsworth January 10. They had come to urge the eight-person WBC to increase its membership, which currently consists of five processors and three growers, to include additional growers. Because the current makeup of that panel is prescribed in the Wild Blueberry law (36 MRS § 4312-C(3), a change in that law is required to alter it. Two hours were spent while the commission and those in the audience aired their views on the expansion of the WBC and other parts of the existing statute.

Present on the WBC were Chairman Roy Allen, Larry Scott, Todd Merrill, Vice Chairman Ed Hennessey, Richard Gardner, David Bell, Darin Hammond, and a young man representing the Allen blueberry interests in Ellsworth. Among the near dozen small growers in the audience were Courtney Hammond of Columbia Falls, Marie Emerson of Addison, Sanford Kelley of Jonesport, Cecil Gray of Columbia, Greg Bridges of Baring, and Brian Powers of Hope. Also present were retiring UMO horticulture Professor David Yarborough and his successor.

WBC Executive Director Nancy McBrady, an environmental lawyer, ran the meeting. She told the group that titles of two bills addressing the makeup of the WBC had already been submitted as placeholders, and that she had a third, fashioned by Rep. Melissa Dunphy of Old Town, a member of the agriculture committee. Competing bills would be resolved by the committee, she said, “so it’s better to be a part of that dialogue by entering our own bill.”

She listed three topics for consideration that had been generated from a December 18 meeting of growers and two WBC members at Blueberry Hill Farm in Jonesboro (see MVNO Dec. 26). Those topics were changing the ratio of the WBC makeup, removing the million-pound threshold in the definition of the grower, and eliminating the mandatory one-year hiatus between terms on the advisory committee.

Defining, adding growers

For purposes of membership on the WBC, the Wild Blueberry statute defines “grower” as a “person, firm…or corporation engaged in the growing of wild blueberries and processing less than 1,000,000 pounds of wild blueberries in a calendar year.” The confusion lies in whether there is a prohibition on growers who grow over a million pounds from serving on the WBC. Hennessey said that “grower” should refer to anyone who grows wild blueberries, regardless of the number of pounds he/she produces. He made a motion for language to that effect and his motion carried unanimously, as did a later one by Bell to strike the one-year down year for advisory committee members.

If and how many new members to add to the eight-member WBC, which under law is currently made up of five processors and three growers, generated more discussion. The small growers had long been advocating for the inclusion of what they considered under-represented aspects of the industry: fresh-packers, value-adders, organic growers, co-operatives and Native Americans. (At their December meeting, the WBC had approved a subcommittee that would advocate for these areas.)

Some in the audience, notably Marie Emerson who often organizes and presents growers’ demands, wanted a member for each group. When she realized that only one or two new seats were apt to be accepted, she argued that one wasn’t enough, because most growers depend on the processors to buy their berries. (Emerson and her husband, Dell, are fresh packers whose berries are blown clean, packed in five-pound boxes, frozen, and sold without going through processors. Berries that processors put through the individually quick-frozen, or IQF, process are subjected to a “kill step”—cooking or a chlorine bath that kills germs, but also, according to fresh packers, many of the healthful qualities for which wild blueberries are valued and used in marketing.)

Baring grower Greg Bridges called for more growers on the WBC to explore new ideas that would help growers, such as cheaper crop control measures. Commissioner Todd Merrill, who chairs the Wild Blueberry Association of North America (WBANNA) that receives substantial funds from the WBC for marketing, supported the addition of one member chosen by the newly created fresh pack/value added subcommittee. David Bell, a former WBC executive director who is now allied with Cherryfield Foods, observed that the five processors on the WBC were responsible for selling 90 percent of the state’s wild blueberries, a factor that should be considered while deciding whether to add grower seats to the table.

Hennessey opted for two new grower seats and declared he was not concerned that the WBC would still have an even number of members. Richard Gardner of East Machias concurred, agreeing with adding one or two seats, keeping an even number, and also reestablishing trust between growers and processors. “We all want a better price,” he said, “but we don’t all want to band together to do it.” 

 Commissioner Darin Hammond, a lobbyist for Jasper Wyman Blueberries and a brother of Courtney, said he supported “parity” between growers and processors. He asked for a show of hands from the growers in the audience on whether to add one grower seat or two, creating parity between growers and processors. Eight raised their hands for parity, one for the addition of one seat, and the rest chose not to vote.

Again, it was Hennessey who called for a vote with a motion for adding two new seats to the commission. In the first non-unanimous vote (according to Darin Hammond, who had earlier claimed that the WBC had had nothing but unanimous votes for the past three years), the motion carried 5-1.  Voting “no” was Larry Scott. Roy Allen and the younger Allen abstained.

 

Following the meeting, the growers got with Robert Alley, the legislative representative from District 138 (Milbridge to Marshfield) to prepare a competing bill that addressed not just the number of seats by which the WBC should be expanded, but how WBC members are appointed, their term limits, their employees moving to employment to positions in the blueberry industry, and the audit of the 1.5-cent-per-pound tax levied on growers and processors.